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The tyranny of the discontinuous mind


Richard Dawkins, New Statesman, 19-12-2011.


What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line? When I call that a silly question, a question that doesn't deserve an answer, I'm not being callous or unfeeling about poverty . . . My objection is to the very idea of a line: a gratuitously manufactured discontinuity in a continuous reality.

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There are those who cannot distinguish a 16-cell embryo from a baby. They call abortion murder and feel righteously justified in committing real murder against a doctor - a thinking, feeling, sentient adult, with a loving family to mourn him . . .

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Where else do we see the tyranny of the discontinuous mind? Colin Powell and Barack Obama are described as black. They do have black ancestors, but they also have white ancestors, so why don’t we call them white? The complication in this case is the weird convention that the descriptor ‘black’ behaves as the cultural equivalent of a genetic dominant. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, crossed wrinkled and smooth peas and the offspring were all smooth: smoothness is ‘dominant’. When a white person breeds with a black person the child is of intermediate colour but is labelled ‘black’: the cultural label is transmitted down the generations like a dominant gene, and this persists even to cases where, say, only one out of eight great grandparents was black and it may not show in skin colour at all. It is the racist ‘contamination metaphor’ of the ‘touch of the tarbrush’. Our language is ill-equipped to deal with a continuum of intermediates. Just as people must lie below or above the poverty ‘line’, so we classify people as ‘black’ even if they are in fact intermediate. When an official form invites us to tick a ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ box I recommend crossing it out and writing ‘human’.



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